Thursday, June 26, 2014

Magnolia: The Celluloid Ghosts of Mississippi

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

August is the Mississippi of the calendar. It's beastly hot and muggy. It has a dismal history. Nothing good ever happens in it. And the United States would be better off without it.
– David Plotz, Slate

I grew up in Mississippi. When people who come from other parts of the United States hear that their old stomping grounds are in the news, they may feel a twinge of nostalgia and even pride.When Mississippi is in the news, as it’s been this past week, due to a high-profile Senate race, exiles from the Magnolia state are more likely to cringe. (The election in question pitted a long-time pork-barrel conservative hack against an unhinged Tea Party challenger who, in order to clarify the difference between himself and the old-style Republican who had sent barrels of government money home to rebuild after Katrina devastated the area, promised crowds that, once elected, “I’m not going to do anything for you!”) There was a time when the name “Mississippi” was connected to carefree rural pleasures—mint julips, ridin’ the steamboat down the Big River, that sort of thing—as typified in the 1935 movie Mississippi, starring W. C. Fields and Bing Crosby, and boasting a score by Rodgers and Hart. A hugely entertaining movie, Mississippi had never been officially released on home video in America until it became available through one of those online DVD-R services last year. Is it paranoid of me to suspect that the big companies didn’t want to touch it because they figured most people would assume from the title that it showed Larson E. Whipsnade and Der Bingle hanging African-Americans up by the their feet and roasting them alive?

Mississippi has a bad reputation these last few decades, and it’s one that the state and its people have worked hard to earn. You can be sweet-hearted and Faulknerian and say that it’s complicated, but the longer history drags on, the more it starts to just seem weird. A few years ago, Jonathan Hock directed a remarkable film, The Best That Never Was, for ESPN’s excellent 30 For 30 series of sports documentaries. It told the story of Marcus Dupree, a football player who first attracted attention as a high school running back. This was in the late 1970s, when Dupree lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers by white racists, with the complicity of the local sheriff’s office. One of the footnote characters in Dupree’s story was Cecil Price, who in 1964 was a 25-year-old deputy and Klansman who served four and a half years for his role in the murders. In Hock’s film, Price’s son recalls that his father was thrilled about Marcus Dupree’s growing celebrity and that the budding sports star was always a welcome guest in their home. Price didn’t have some moment of revelation that opened his eyes on the road to Damascus and made him a better man, like Jon Voight’s Pat Conroy in Conrack. He was just a guy who believed so fiercely in maintaining legal separation of the races that he was prepared to shed blood over it, because all the other guys at the pool hall felt that way. Then it became socially unacceptable to kill people in the name of segregation, so he did a one-eighty and turned into a guy who told a New York Times interviewer that “We’ve got to accept this is the way things are going to be and that’s it,” adding that he really enjoyed that there Roots on TV. You could spare yourself some sleepless nights by not thinking too hard about how many of the people you can see baying for blood in old newsreel footage of racist riots at Ole Miss, and wondering how much smoother things might have gone if the die-hard segregationists who really meant what they said, and who felt the same way thirty years later, had had to go it alone without the support of those who were just swimming with the tide.

Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning (1988)
The best-known movie about the white racist terrorism of that period is Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning, which is a great pity. Mississippi Burning, which stars Gene Hackman (hearty, Southern-accented, sexy in a Big Daddy kind of way) and Willem Dafoe (stiffly repressed, wears glasses, looked as if he were having more fun a few more earlier when he’d played Jesus) as FBI agents sent to Dixie Hell to investigate the disappearance of the murdered social workers. This isn’t a movie about the conflict between those who want America to enforce the laws protecting the values of equality that the nation claims to stand for, and those violently opposed to those laws. It’s a horror movie about innocent human beings at the mercy of a tribe of sweaty, stupidly brutal Morlocks, just as Parker’s first serious Oscar contender, Midnight Express, was a horror movie about an innocent boy at the mercy of a tribe of sadistic, rape-happy Morlocks who claimed to be Turks. Both these horror films are oppressively “gripping” in the manner of the original Alien—a film that was directed by Ridley Scott, who, like Parker, got his start working in TV commercials. Both of them came away from that training ground armed with considerable technical skill, trained eyes, and an unfortunate belief that pushiness is an aesthetic value. (At least Richard Lester, the commercial genius turned movie wizard of an earlier era, came away from the experience with a highly developed sense of playfulness.)

Mississippi Burning would be easier to forgive, if no easier to sit through, if it didn’t turn the history and values of the Civil Rights Movement on their head. The movie is rigged the way the old Fox News “debate” show Hannity & Colmes was rigged. Dafoe, the simp from wonkville, thinks that the defenders of the law can bring about justice by working within the law, the dope. Hackman, the guy who knows where he is and knows what kind of animals he’s dealing with, knows that the only way to deal with the terrorist vigilantes of the Klan is to show them that the FBI men are better, smarter, stronger vigilantes. So he starts cracking heads, and in one prankish scene, has a local man abducted and terrorized by a black agent who threatens to castrate him if he doesn’t start singing like Hank Williams. (On that distant planet called Earth, the FBI cracked the case by slipping money, not ass-whuppings, to an informant.)

With any luck, Mississippi Burning will remain the last movie to try to sell the idea that Hoover’s FBI was the best friend a black man could have in 1964. When some complained at the time about his diddling with history, Parker explained that he wanted lots of people to see his movie, because the real story was so important, but that if he told the real story accurately, fewer people would want to see it. That puts him in the same category as Ceci Connolly, the Washington Post reporter who, during the 2000 presidential campaign, wrote that Al Gore had claimed to have broken the news about Love Canal. When a tape surfaced showing that Gore had said no such thing, Connolly insisted that her story was, while inaccurate, still valid, because like other inaccurate stories then circulating in the media (such as the one about Gore claiming to have “invented the Internet”), it alerted the public that Gore was a liar—even if the evidence of his lying had to be made up. Is there a specific word for this kind of thing? Calling it bullshit seems unfair to bullshit.

The civil rights workers themselves aren’t characters in Mississippi Burning, just an undifferentiated mass of hymn-singing, head-bowed cattle who need the white heroes with the badges and the guns to save them from slaughter at the hands of the killer rednecks. This problem has been a recurring feature of civil rights movies, including Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), about the efforts to hold the white racist and terrorist Byron De La Beckwith accountable for the 1963 murder of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, a quarter of a century after the killing. Reiner isn’t the highly skilled flagelist that Parker can be, and his movie is both duller and the more pleasant viewing experience, but it portrays Evers’ widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), as a stoic pillar of sweet martyrdom, not as the (justifiably) angry, avenging wraith who kept her husband’s memory alive and fought for some measure of justice for his memory.

A scene from In the Heat of the Night
The characterization of the oppressed in these movies looks even worse compared to the treatment of the Sidney Poitier character in In the Heat of the Night, which is set in the fictitious small town of Sparta, Mississippi, and which came out at a time when segregation in rural Mississippi was still very much alive and well—it came out at a time, 1967, when the bodies of Medgar Evers and those civil rights workers must have scarcely seemed cold. In the Heat of the Night is a movie that gets no respect anymore. Aside from the fact that the script is largely a square, mechanical detective story with a current-events angle, it must forever bear the shame of having won the Academy Award for Best Picture that everyone thinks should have gone to Bonnie & Clyde or The Graduate. (Imagine if it had gone to one of the other nominees, Doctor Dolittle.) But In the Heat of the Night really holds up as superior, slick entertainment, and it has qualities that, for stretches at a time, lift it above its own category: principally, Rod Steiger’s performance as the casually racist but surprisingly adaptable police chief, the best cinematography of Haskell Wexler’s career, and a genuine sense of creeping unease that suggests how it feels to look up and realize that you’ve wandered into some remote corner of the world where you might suddenly run into some inbred piece of white trash who’s never been right about anything in his life, but who would not be far wrong if he decided that he could kill you there on the spot and no one would ever find your body.

Poitier’s performance isn’t as inventive and entertaining as Steiger’s, and it’s not up to his own best work, either. It marks the peak of that phase in his career where being not just a credit to his race, but better than anything the white man could line up against him for purposes of comparison, had made him a little stiff. (That same year, he also appeared in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was also up for Best Picture at the Oscars, and which is that rare movie that could make you beg to watch Doctor Dolittle instead.) But he has a rich undercurrent of seething anger beneath his unruffled veneer, and he even gets to slap the shit out of a condescending rich man who has compared blacks to, not even the lilies of the field, but the exotic flowers who need men like him to tend them in the controlled environment of his greenhouse.

Placing Poitier’s performance next to Whoopi Goldberg’s in Ghosts (especially after comparing the latter to James Woods’ Oscar-nominated, venom-spitting turn as De La Beckwith) can make you wonder: did Hollywood see black characters’ anger as more permissible when black people in America had fewer options besides expressing (muffled) anger? You could also compare Poitier’s Virgil Tubbs to the conception of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. Not only is the true mark of Mandela’s greatness his willingness to forgive those who’ve made life hell for him and his people—which is exactly the main thing that conservatives like Rush Limbaugh found in the man’s legacy to praise when the actual Mandela died last year—but in the movie, when he takes charge of the country, he understands that his first priority must be to reassure white people that he’s on their side, too. It makes sense that people who’ve been using force to keep other people down would lack the imagination to assume that their former victims might be made of finer stuff than themselves, but a great man’s “need” to accommodate such people and calm their fevered brows might be treated with more irony than Eastwood brought to it. (Invictus came out in 2009, Barack Obama’s first year as president. Was Eastwood, perhaps not fully consciously, offering some advice to the mild-mannered, compromising, part-black president he had originally supported, but who he turned against after conservative commentators started denouncing him as an unreasonable militant radical who was obsessed with race and probably hates whitey? Ask the empty chair.)

Liv Tyler and Charles S. Dutton in Cookie's Fortune (1999)
One thing you could never guess from any of these movies, or most movies set in and about Mississippi, is that there actually are some sane, intelligent people who live in that state voluntarily. The major exception to that rule that I know about is Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune (1999), which was not nominated for any Oscars and isn’t a particularly major movie, except in terms of how majorly enjoyable it is. The movie isn’t in open denial about the history of the American South, the way Gone with the Wind and other celebrations of the Southern “aristocracy” and the affectionate relations between slaves and their masters, but it also acknowledges that times have changed, and uses that to tease the assumptions that audiences bring to stories about black-and-white relations in the Deep South. Charles Dutton plays Willis, an easy-going, hard-drinking black handyman in the small town of Holly Springs, who is taken into custody as the prime suspect in the murder of a local dowager, Cookie (Patricia Neal). Cookie has actually committed suicide, but her hoity-toity niece (Glenn Close), fearing a scandal, has discovered the body ahead of the police and altered the crime scene, and Willis ends up framed by accident.

The movie’s running joke is that nobody behaves according to the Southern Gothic playbook. Willis, who was drunk when Cookie died, is pretty sure he didn’t do it, but he doesn’t rail about the injustice of the false accusation; he sits around patiently waiting to be exonerated, having nothing else important on his schedule to see to. The head lawman on the case, played by Ned Beatty, knows Willis didn’t do it; he knows him well enough to understand that he could never do such a thing, because “I’ve fished with him.” (Almost 25 years earlier, Beatty played a character based on Cecil Price on the TV movie Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. The Ku Klux Klan. That’s a pretty good inside joke even if the casting was a coincidence.)

The low-pressure, breezy charm that Dutton and Beatty bring to the movie are the least of the alchemical feats that Altman performs with his cast (which also includes Julianne Moore, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash, Donald Moffat, Matt Malloy, Lyle Lovett, and Rufus Thomas); he even transforms Liv Tyler and Chris O’Donnell into a pair of white-trash Shakespearean comic lovers. He takes his time letting the plot unfold (and turns the unraveling of the convoluted “mystery” into a joke), and that may be party of his strategy for the movie’s real accomplishment: it makes you appreciate not just the convivial, communal nature but the slowed-down pace of small-town Southern life.

In this, it was going against the grain in 1999—it opened the same day as The Matrix—and it does so even more, now that even people in Holly Springs probably have Twitter accounts. But aside from being the most pleasurable movie experience listed here, Cookie’s Fortune might also present the most convincing case against Mississippi’s segregationist past and those who would make excuses for it or even try to perpetuate it today. The final image of the heroes fishing off a pier (and still trying to piece together the last-minute revelation about one character’s parentage) shows that there are better things to do with your life than fight over who gets to use the good drinking fountain. While some in Mississippi stew over protecting their precious Southern heritage, the fish are biting and a lot of beautiful scenery is going to waste.

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. Club, HitFlix, Nerve, HiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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